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Ever hear of a ‘Chinese Gift Exchange’?

Well, there’s nothing Chinese about it

I meant to write this a while ago, but nothing seems to get done when it should this time of year. Body and mind go into some sort of holiday hibernation. A biological yuletide alarm clock goes off, telling you to take a break. And, of course, you go along with it: “I made it through another year. I deserve a break. It is the holidays, after all.” This is what happened to me — and nothing could be more absurd.

I live in a city that has all of the holiday fixings, but none of the holiday feelings (no matter what Xinhua would have us think). I am not a student, therefore no winter break. I am not technically employed, therefore no expectation of holiday vacation time. And, perhaps what makes my little holiday hiatus most preposterous, is what I did in the months leading up to now — I traveled. Yeah, sure, I deserve a break. I’m sure all of you who have been tied to a desk all year would agree.

Perhaps some of my mental malaise can be attributed to a mild state of depression, a feeling that I imagine afflicts many foreigners in China this time of year. Another holiday overseas, far from home, away from family and friends. So we try to fake it here, filling our days and nights with as much approximated holiday cheer as possible. Bliss and I began that ritual with a holiday party a week before Christmas, two days before Bliss boarded a plane headed for Georgia.

The highlight of the evening was a “Chinese” gift exchange, a practice, we learned, that has no Chinese qualities whatsoever.

You can read the rules of a “Chinese” gift exchange here. Because I didn’t take the time to read the rules too carefully, we ended up using a watered-down, less-complicated version, and that was probably for the better. Nearly 30 people participated in this gift exchange and the overwhelming majority of the gift-exchangers were Chinese — none of whom had the foggiest idea what a “Chinese” gift exchange was all about.

And what is a “Chinese” gift exchange all about? Basically, the opposite of everything Christmas is about. It’s about taking, not giving. It’s about selfishness and screwing people over. Evidently, these are not values that most Chinese are quick to adopt, even the country’s current “me” generation. The way our gift exchange worked was simple. After choosing numbers out of a hat to determine an order, everyone who brought a gift got to select one from under the tree, one by one. If you liked the gift you chose, you could keep it. If you didn’t, you could force someone who opened before you to swap gifts. Obviously, those who chose big numbers from the hat and were among the last to open their gifts were in the best positions — they pretty much could choose whatever the hell they wanted.

But, that would require people to actually embrace the spirit of the game. That didn’t happen. I was the 15th person to select a gift, and not one of the people who went before me — many of them my former students, including some familiar faces from The Trip: Jo, Gerry and Diamond — elected to swap gifts with someone else. And this was not due to the fact that all of their gifts were great, either. Much of it was junk. But still, one after another, people came to the tree, unwrapped a present — say, a string of red plastic peanuts — and announced to the crowd that they planned to keep it. The foreigners present often looked befuddled. “Really?” they would ask. “You want to keep that?” And the proud owner of, say, a new plastic toothpick holder would smile proudly and say, “I like it. I will keep it.”

Out of a sense of duty I traded my gift. And when I swapped my orange construction worker’s hard-hat for a decorative glass ball, the ball’s previous owner — a Chinese woman — looked so devastated that I whispered in her ear that I would give the ball back to her after the party. But I couldn’t — it didn’t take long for someone to steal the ball from me — so I have since purchased a new decorative glass ball that I will give to the woman the next time I see her. That look on her face made me feel quite guilty. None of my previous “Chinese” gift exchange experiences had done that to me before.

Is there a cultural lesson to be learned here? Maybe. Maybe there are some reasons why the concept of a “Chinese” gift exchange now seems so very un-Chinese to me, but I’m not sure what they are. Here are some guesses:

Regardless, the party really cleared out after the un-Chinese gift exchange. I had been warned of this — Chinese parties often end shortly after the curtain falls on the “main event.” Johnson explained Chinese parties as a series of “programs.” There will be games. Maybe someone will sing for the group. Someone will dance. Several people will address the crowd — which explains why my landlord, who attended so he could “listen to English,” kept demanding that I “make a speech.” Johnson said most Chinese parties are boring. To me, they seem designed to allow for as little actual one-on-one human interaction as possible.

A typical American party, on the other hand, has very little structure. The hosts provide some food, some drink, some music, enough toilet paper and the rest kind of takes care of itself. Guests imbibe and mingle and leave when all the alcohol is gone. It was interesting to see how my former students — who had the best excuses for an early exit … a campus-wide curfew, even on the weekends — handled the situation. Most of them don’t drink much — Gerry tried one glass of red wine and hated it — and many of them had never been to a “foreign” party before. But they were prompt. If you put 8:30 p.m. on the invitation, they’ll start arriving at 8. You can’t afford to be fashionably late if you have to be back in the dorms by 11 o’clock.

The foreigners didn’t start arriving until around 9:30 p.m., as expected. Before that, there was a lot of sitting and staring, as Bliss and I were occupied hanging up coats and topping off non-alcoholic drinks. But when the crowd became more mixed, it also started to relax. And things warmed up there for a while.

But still, every now and again, one of my former students would turn to a foreigner seated nearby and ask, “What happens next?”

Click here for a few photos. I, believe it or not, didn’t take any photos. Too busy doling out hot apple cider. If you came to the party, and have some photos to share, email them to me and I’ll add them to the album.

Also … So, why is it called a Chinese gift exchange then? Well, likely because it is a somewhat unorganized and inefficient way to exchange gifts — kind of like buying something through the chain of command at a Chinese department store. You might find some more insight here, where you can learn all about the phrase “Chinese fire drill” and several more. … Some bloggers came to the party — and they are the ones who lasted until the end. A really bad photo was taken of us at around 2 a.m. … I really should have posted all of this holiday stuff on Christmas Day, but I couldn’t — I was too busy recovering from Christmas Eve. Santa brought me a hangover. … Check out Glen and Kelly’s favorite Christmas present. … Check out mine. … This time of year, I usually email out a homemade holiday card to everyone in my address book. That didn’t happen this year … because my old address book crashed with my old hard drive. I lost hundreds of email addresses. So no card from Dan this year. Sorry about that. But let me take this opportunity to wish a Happy Holidays to everyone — and if you happen to be from one of the “red states” … Merry Christmas! There, are you happy now?

12.28.2004, 4:15 PM · Diary, Observations


  1. http://www.theworld.org/globalhits/index.shtml

    Any relation? ;)

  2. Strange coincidence - I also just did a gift exchange at my work too- “Corporate Gift Exchange.” Reading this article brought back some memories of my own situation.

    $$Happy Holidays and Happy New Year$$

  3. Sharp observation about the spirit of “taking” in CHINE$E GIFT EXCHANGES. We had a company dinner last week and there was a LUCKY DRAW. Most of the Chinese staff and guests were unabashedly interested in this tradition. The moment they arrived, they were asking for draw coupons.

  4. I had a Christmas party in my Shanghai apartment on December 18th. Some Chinese folks came early and the foreigners came later, but almost all my Chinese guests left en masse precisely at 9:45pm. I was stuck with a fridge full of leftover homemade eggnog, mulled wine and rice pudding. Ho! Ho! Ho!

  5. Is it like white elephant


Shanghai Diaries is a website about Shanghai, China ... and lots of other stuff. Voted Best Mainland China Blog in the 2004 Asia Blog Awards.

Editor: Dan Washburn

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Dan is a freelance writer living in Shanghai. More about Dan.

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